SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Iraq can learn from the recent history of El Salvador, a country wrecked by civil war that has developed into stable democracy and close U.S. ally, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) said Thursday.
Rumsfeld, speaking at the U.S. Embassy here, thanked the Salvadorans for supplying troops for U.S. operations in Iraq. El Salvador (search), with about 370 soldiers in the country, is the only country in the Western Hemisphere, other than the United States, that currently has troops there.
"We are deeply in your debt," Rumsfeld said during a Veterans Day ceremony honoring U.S. and Salvadoran soldiers. He held up El Salvador as "a nation that understands well the human struggle for liberty and democracy."
From 1979 to 1992, El Salvador suffered a bloody civil war with leftist guerillas that left 75,000 dead in this nation of 6.5 million, where half live in poverty.
"The fight is not easy. It never is. It requires patience. And it has costs," Rumsfeld said before laying a wreath on a monument remembering U.S. citizens, including 20 U.S. military personnel, who were killed in the civil war.
Salvadoran troops have fought well in Iraq, U.S. military officials say. In one case, soldiers fought off Iraqi insurgents with knives after running out of ammunition. The only Salvadoran to be killed in Iraq died during that battle. At home, though, the Salvadoran government has faced protests for sending troops to the conflict.
On Friday, Rumsfeld was set to award the bronze star to six Salvadoran soldiers who, on March 5, defended a convoy during an ambush and are credited with saving the lives of six Coalition Provisional Authority (search) personnel. Their leader, 1st Sgt. Fredy Castro Urbina, was a veteran of the civil war.
He was also to meet with top officials in this Central American ally.
Rumsfeld's visit was en route to a conference of American defense ministers in Quito, Ecuador, next week. A host of issues are expected to be on the table there — from counternarcotics efforts throughout the Americas to the ongoing peacekeeping mission in Haiti.
Rumsfeld will also visit Nicaragua and Panama. Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic had troops in Iraq, but they departed earlier this year.
Speaking with reporters on the flight to El Salvador, Rumsfeld said hundreds of insurgent fighters had been killed in the fight for Fallujah, but offered no prediction on when the city would be secured.
He also acknowledged that some insurgents escaped, but predicted that Fallujah would be eliminated as a "safe haven for extremists, former regime elements and terrorists."
U.S. troops were "well along in that task and they will finish it successfully," he said.